Often lacking in scholarly and policy-oriented discussions of homelessness are contextualized understandings of the problems faced, and the values held, by homeless mentally ill people. This article, using an anthropological perspective, examines issues that arise for homeless mentally ill individuals in making the transition from shelter living to permanent residences. The transition occurs as part of a housing initiative driven by the philosophy of consumer empowerment. Project participants are placed in independent apartments or evolving consumer households (ECH) — shared, staffed residences designed to transform themselves into consumer-directed living situations over time. The effects of an empowerment paradigm on the organization of space, the nature of social relations, and the management of economic resources in the ECHs are discussed to show that consumers and staff sometimes have contrasting views of what empowerment entails. It is suggested that anthropological research can help to illuminate the issues at stake in determining policy for homeless people with major mental illness.



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